So, after some hard work you have finally landed that research position. Congratulations! You are excited and enthusiastic about what’s to come. Maybe you’ll take over your own research project, present at a conference, get published in a prestigious journal, or all of the above. This research experience will become an exciting time of discovery and creativity where you will explore the collaborative dynamic of a research group. As with any endeavor, there will be high points and low points. New discoveries are not always made on a daily basis or even a yearly basis for that matter. Yet, a countless number of students pour themselves into their research every year thinking the very same thing and grind to a halt during the bad months all too easily. The pace of your research and an awareness of the grand scheme of attending medical school, are important things to keep in mind. Getting into a research lab was the first step but, it’s far from smooth sailing here on out. These are some common pitfalls to avoid in your research experience.
1) Lab Technician Limbo
The research position is finally yours, or so you think. Becoming a lab technician is a totally viable option for getting that foot in the door. The technician position teaches you the necessary skills and procedures that are commonly performed in the lab. The downside is that students frequently get caught in this position with no hope of moving up in the lab ranks. Even those students who are promised heavy involvement in the lab’s research are sometimes relegated to menial tasks. Of course, autoclaving and glassware duties are normal when first starting out, but if it has been 3-4 months without any real, personal involvement in research I would strongly recommend talking to your Principle Investigator (PI) or the graduate student with whom you are conducting research. Do not become complacent with the level of your involvement in research and desire something more.
2) Initiative Is Everything
Your P.I. is a professional researcher and if there’s anything your P.I. dislikes more than lecturing during a busy semester, it’s a premed student that is only looking to get a good letter of recommendation. Whatever your goals, do not give off that impression. Trust me, I’ve seen that premed student who shows up when he/she wants to, disappearing for weeks at times before waltzing back in the lab like nothing has happened.
This kind of attitude does not build rapport with your research mentors. Stay on the initiative and keep looking for ways to advance your research with your graduate student or PI. Professors find it much easier to invest their time in someone who shows genuine ambition for the lab’s research. Overall, you want to keep an open mind about research because who knows, you might realize that your true passion is in medical research.
3) Keeping A Fine Balance
The delicate balance between research experience and academic performance is, in my opinion, the most important thing that medical schools look for. Consistent participation in research while maintaining that stellar science GPA speaks volumes about the focus and determination of a candidate.
With this in mind, if you find yourself struggling to keep up academically because of your commitment to research, please slow down and perform an honest re-evaluation of how much better you would do in class with the extra hours usually spent in lab. Don’t wait for it to become an excuse you try to explain on your personal statement to medical schools. I am not saying stop conducting research altogether because that is the last thing you want to do. However, each quarter/semester does have different weight depending on the number of units you take and the difficulty of the classes. Adjust accordingly, maybe staying for 2 hours a day instead of the usual 4 hours. Again, don’t take an entire quarter/semester off from research unless it is absolutely necessary. This research experience-to-academic performance statistic is your biggest weapon for applying to medical schools, but can also be your biggest weakness. Ultimately, it falls on your shoulders to realistically judge your limits and adjust your schedules.
Adjusting to the research environment is a process and differs greatly upon the type of research that is being performed. These are just some of the common pitfalls you can avoid to optimize your research experience, but don’t be discouraged by any mistakes that you might and probably will make. The epitome of research is observation of data followed by conclusion. Every success as well as every mistake will shape your research and this mentality that will allow you to appropriately describe your research experience to medical schools during the application process.